A bipartisan group of Federal legislators wrote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on May 20 urging “greater scrutiny and regulation of private companies providing highly advanced surveillance capabilities to governments with troubling human rights records.”

The letter, which was signed by Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., as well as Reps. Mike Gallagher, R-Wyo., Jason Crow, D-Colo., Will Hurd, R-Texas, Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., Colin Allred, D-Texas, Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., André Carson, D-Ind., and Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., requests that the Secretary of State and Director of National Intelligence to “take steps to mitigate the risk that foreign governments can use US private sector assistance in an unlawful and abusive manner.”

“Capabilities that the United States and our allies developed to catch terrorists should not be sold on the open market to help dictatorships catch dissidents, or spy on ordinary Americans,” said Malinowski.  “We need new rules to control the spread of these emerging surveillance technologies.”

The legislators point to press reports in recent months alleging that certain private companies – who often employ former intelligence agency employees in Western countries – sell hacking expertise and IT to authoritarian governments. The legislators say that tech is then used by those authoritarian governments, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to spy on dissidents and journalists, including those from the United States.

The letter further alleged that the “capabilities provided by a private company aided Saudi Arabia in its surveillance of Jamal Khashoggi and his associates.” Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabia-native who was living in the United States and working for the Washington Post, was allegedly assassinated in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

“The private sector makes legitimate and important contributions to foreign law enforcement and intelligence operations, especially those of our closest allies,” the letter says. “We are concerned, however, about these and other reported instances in which foreign governments with troubling human rights records, or private entities operating in furtherance of the interests of those governments, have apparently exploited the advanced training and expertise of individuals who developed their technical skills while in U.S. national service.”

Despite the risks, the legislators said that currently there are “few rules governing the spread of these surveillance tools.”

In the letter, the legislators lay out five suggestions. First, the Secretary of State and Director of National Intelligence need to ensure that there are rules and processes in place to ensure that “export of intelligence-related capabilities and services under a license granted by the U.S. government” isn’t approved for problematic countries. Next, the lawmakers request that companies “credibly implicated in enabling human rights abuses, violations of U.S. laws, or infringements on the privacy rights of U.S. persons by foreign governments are investigated and held accountable.” Third, the U.S. government must engage diplomatically with other governments where “such companies are headquartered, operating, or otherwise providing services, to make clear that the United States expects such activities be curtailed.” Additionally, the Federal government needs to make sure that other governments meet their human rights obligations when engaging in intelligence activities with the support of the U.S. government or private sector companies.

Finally, the United States must enhance its ability to “prevent retired or former Intelligence Community professionals from inappropriately drawing on sensitive technical expertise obtained during their prior U.S. Government service, in the course of providing assistance … to foreign intelligence or law enforcement operations.”

The lawmakers also requested a briefing from both the State Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence on this matter.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.